Ocean Acidification: An Immediate Threat or Why all the Hubub About Climate Change?

By Christopher C. Bergan

The whole world is talking about Climate Change. Anthropological Global Warming. Global Disruption. This is planet wide terra-forming with Green House Gasses (GHG) as the primary modus operandi, and it seems that a few billion people weren’t expecting this challenge to our collective survival. 195 of 196 nations were charter members of the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was first proposed at the Rio Conference in 1992 and entered into force in March of 1996. That’s a lot of delegates! And after years of being confronted with melting glaciers, expanding deserts, extended droughts, record flooding, and record hurricanes; these delegates have finally agreed that steps need to be taken to mitigate any human-induced factors which might have created this climate change. This is a first step. The other important step was to agree to continue to meet and reassess every five years. It is my belief that the greatest danger of climate change is not the warming or the rising seas, but the changing chemistry of those seas. This effect is a lowering of P/H levels which acidifies the oceans. By the end of this century most life may be extinct in the oceans, which will mean greatly lowered oxygen levels for humans and other creatures as well as the possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect. This all centers on tiny plankton. But first allow me to backtrack a bit.

History of CO² knowledge.

Many reading this will have already heard of the Swede, Svante Arrhenius. In 1896 he was finishing up some complicated equations to explain how CO² might have affected the ice ages and glaciers. He then turned to a colleague, Arvid Högbom, to get some assistance on natural CO² cycles from volcanoes and oceans. Then Dr. Arrhenius decided to include factory emissions (mostly coal at that time) – and things got interesting. He calculated that within three thousand years mankind could raise the planet’s temperature by as much as 6°C! OK, not quite a compelling problem. Dr. Arrhenius eventually wrote a book which was published in 1908. Upon revisiting his calculations he looked at continued coal emissions, and calculated that mankind now would cause significant global warming in less than a millenia. Other scientists glanced at this work, did some independent calculations of their own, and had quite different outcomes. In short, Dr. Arrhenius’ work was labeled as flawed and was soon ignored by the majority of the science literate. In 1938 an English engineer, Guy Stewart Callendar, began to champion the idea of global warming. But since he was an amateur meteorologist, the minimal factors which were accounted for in his papers left room for doubts by many professionals. In the 1950’s and 1960’s some better work was done by Kaplan, Suess, & Revelle which paved the way for the acceptance of Arrhenius’ work. Then C. David Keeling began tracking CO² levels and published his Keeling Curve Chart. A detailed account of this history is found here. About the time Herr Hitler succeeded Gen. von Hindenberg as German Chancellor, a graduate student in Chicago was starting his master’s thesis on the quantum aspects of the infrared absorption spectrum of CO². In later years, when Dr. Alvin Weinberg was Director at ORNL, he continued to have an interest in the work being done on the implications heat absorption by CO². After being “ousted” from ORNL in 1973, Weinberg wrote a paper on the energy economy which included possible global warming scenarios – which were now anticipated to be only a century away. These concerns were presented to Congress in 1975 – and politely ignored. In 1981 a ten page article in Science Magazine titled Climate impact of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide introduced a new name into this tale, Dr. James Hansen of NASA. In 1988 Dr. Hansen testified before congress and the hubub about climate change finally began to be taken seriously by the general public.

What does plankton have to do with climate change?

The oceans are 99% of the known livable space on the earth. In spite of the fact that human beings are mostly excluded from that living space, there are several thousand known plants & animals that do live in the oceans. So I’d like to repeat that phrase: The oceans are 99% of the known livable space on the earth! That fact is important. There are now about 5,000 species of plankton in the world. One of the 3 types of plankton is Phytoplankton (theses include both fresh water or oceanic organisms), which absorbs sunlight and carbon dioxide. Abundant yet tiny, phytoplankton forms the bottom of the water-based food chain. Phytoplankton (mostly single celled plants) does three things;
  1. Phytoplankton are sometimes eaten by small animals and baleen whales, forming the base of the oceanic food chain. Nearly half the human population lives within 60 miles of the ocean and is a part of that food chain. The seas also provides the biggest source of wild or domestic protein in the world.
  2. Phytoplankton absorbs CO² and sequesters it in their tiny shells which eventually fall to the bottom of the ocean – should they not get eaten first. By total mass, nearly half of all life in the oceans are comprised of these tiny plankton!
  3. As these bits of plankton take in CO² for nourishment, they also give off oxygen. In fact, it has been estimated that up to 80% of the earth’s oxygen is produced by phytoplankton! Breathe deeply as you consider this fact.

What happens when plankton becomes scarce? Or extinct?

It is known among scientists that nearly 40% of the plankton around the world has disappeared in the past 50 years. In fact, Professor Jean-Pierre Gattuso believes that arctic plankton could be completely extinct before 2030! These aren’t random hypotheses – the process is being documented now! Whether passively or specifically, some people are defiant when confronted with the urgent context of this situation. They believe that taking back democracy from the super rich will save our preferred climate – as if Dr. Lovelocke’s conception of Gaia (Mother Nature if you prefer) cares how we distribute and use her resources. It matters not how morally those natural resources are used; if they are used too quickly the planet cannot keep pace with these induced changes and there are penalties. The penalties for dumping GHG into the environment include terra-forming the planet so that glaciers melt and increasing water acidity changes habitats so that many become less hospitable to life. We need to admit that this is a global chemical & energy problem! Yes there are societal implications, both for humans as well as mammals, insects, & fish (they seem to have a type of society too). But terra-forming the earth (or Geo-Engineering) is real science, & Ocean Acidification (in my opinion) is the biggest problem associated with anthropological climate change! Here’s how I see it:
  1. The oceans absorb CO² & heat.
  2. This process is exacerbated by excess CO² absorbing infrared wavelengths.
  3. Plankton use that carbon to make billions of tiny shells each month.
  4. Plankton makes a lot of oxygen. More than land-based plants actually!
  5. Some plankton are eaten as the base of the food chain.
  6. Tons of uneaten plankton fall to the ocean floor – providing natural CO² sequestration
  7. Some minute amounts of CO² are not made into plankton shells, but instead become carbonic acid.
  8. Carbonic acid interrupts the life cycle of plankton by dissolving shells – no circle of aquatic life!
  9. Activies #1-6 slow and eventually stop occurring in increasingly acidic oceans.
  10. Goodbye oxygen for fish & mammals. Goodbye ocean food chain.

Hello global starvation and extinctions! Hello runaway greenhouse effect – Venus gets a twin!

Not to worry though; Gaia will likely create another intelligent being after Homo “Deluded” Sapien disappears. Just a shame we might take a few thousand other creatures with us into extinction. The earth will continue to spin and orbit – in the next billion years there will likely be several intelligent new species similar to chimps, dolphins, ants, cats, dogs, and such. Perhaps the dominant species of the next great era will be more similar to a grasshopper or octopus rather than the ape? I insert one question at this point for social activists who have been so busy as of late:  How could “taking back democracy” actually impact activities #7-10 as listed above?  How are populations of fish schools coupled with the distribution of wealth within capitalistic land-based societies? Does the voting record of union members change how CO² absorbs in three distinct spectrums? Global Chemistry is a hard science best solved by those trained in STEM education. We laypeople need to listen and learn about scientific convention, not fight against those that best understand how to mitigate Global Climate Change.  [end personal rant]

No need to take my word for all this.

I would suggest watching a talk entitled Acidification, Climate & Energy by Dr. Alex Cannara. This was given in June of 2015 at the TEAC7 conference. He has other talks online as well. Then there’s also an excellent documentary called Racing Extinction by Oscar winner Louie Psihoyos. This is an excellent overview the many of the problems which all inhabitants of the earth are facing. While I didn’t personally care for the “Save the Whales” mentality which bookends this documentary (Sorry, but I am also a hardcore fan of Star Trek TOS and just didn’t appreciate that aspect of the fourth movie – at the time), I do recognize that this over-fishing issue is a point to which the general public can relate. The core of the greater issue is found in the middle third of the Racing Extinction film: Ocean Acidification. To summarize yet again; currently several species of plankton are already under duress and numbers have begun to dwindle. I would ask what good is saving whales, dolphins, turtles, tuna, lobster, or seahorses in the 21st century if all sea life will be extinct in the 23rd century? Kelp and jellyfish excluded. It is this issue of ocean acidification which excess CO² exacerbates. So please, watch that middle portion of the Racing Extinction documentary a second time. Then perhaps watch a Ted Talk or use the internet to find recent information directly from researchers.

Context: the long view is equally important.

Can we avert this mass extinction scenario? Is it too late to avoid even some of these effects? We all should think carefully about this in the coming months, then act decisively in accordance with good science and engineering precepts – not fantasies based on feel-good ideas. I will say here that neither journalism nor political science are actual sciences. Valid scientists interact with dozens or even hundreds of fellow experts to build a solid story from their research. Less trustworthy scientists often rely on a very few cohorts (or on themselves alone!) to support a position. So let’s find actual experts & learn the basic science of climate change. Then find qualified engineers & architects that can build what science experts tell us are the best solutions. Yes there are short term societal concerns to keep us busy, but the hubub of daily concerns won’t matter much if we have no descendants to remember us. We must make the time in this century to return the earth to it’s proper, natural climate cycle. If our global village procrastinates even a few decades, our wealth of information and many achievements may disappear from the face of the earth in the coming centuries with only the distant artificial satellites of Pioneer & Voyager to mark our temporary learning curve.  

Perhaps the greatest commitment to come out of the recent COP21 is the agreement to meet again. Cop22 is in 5 years & COP23 in 10 years. We absolutely have to get it right by then – or else!


This is how the ocean makes Earth livable

Racing Extinction Documentary panel @ UCTV

Phytoplankton fading global seas

Meeting the Renewable Energy Challenge: James Hansen Lecture

Nature decline ocean phytoplankton global warming boris worm

What is ocean acidification?

Arnold Schwarzenegger Climate campaigns need focus right now not 2050?

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About ChrisB

A lifelong "armchair scientist", I have previously spent 19 years in management and systems analysis, with some conflict resolution. For the last few years I have worked as a cab driver - and enjoyed it.

6 thoughts on “Ocean Acidification: An Immediate Threat or Why all the Hubub About Climate Change?

  1. Virgil Fenn

    I finally read your piece carefully. It is excellent. There is one tiny point that I would make. I think that we would all starve long before we run out of Oxygen.

    1. ChrisB

      Thanks for your comment, Virgil. If things actually become that desperate, no one will starve as long as they still have one tasty neighbor:-)

      I’ll admit that the tone of this article is a bit shrill, but I feel we are basically out of time on this issue. The effects may not be catastrophic for most animals on the land for another century, but the oceans have only a couple decades IMHO. This should have been a front-page issue 40 years ago.

  2. Dr A. Cannara

    I’ll send Chris the history doc about acidification, so that it can be posted, if desired.

    By the way, this site’s spell checker needs to learn acidification. ;]

  3. ChrisB Post author

    Here is the technical document mentioned by Dr. Cannara in the form of a 12 page pdf file.
    Written by P. G. Brewer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), it was published in Biogeosciences back in November of 2013. http://www.facebook.com/download/478680658984773/A-Short-History-of-Ocean-Acidification-Science.pdf

    Within the Energy Reality Project’s Facebook group Dr. Cannara also wrote,
    “Note that increasing water temp aggravates pH declines because of chemistry. and increased organics being washed into seas decrease Oxygen availability for fish, etc. And, CO2 dissolution decreases metabolism. So, we musty address these together and promptly.”

  4. Noora

    Thanks for your work on this article! I absolutely love it and have been a long time fan. However, I’ve read a lot on how phytoplankton will survive longer the more warming occurs. In the words of a wise man, “No snow cover, more melting, more melt ponds, more skylights, more sunlight, more phytoplankton.” Thoughts??
    My friends are skeptical on the impact of phytoplankton and how important they are to the ecosystem as a whole. Any response would be greatly appreciated.


    1. ChrisB Post author

      Thanks for the kind words Noora, and sorry for this tardy response.
      Warming might be good for some plankton, but that warming is in response to GHG emissions. CO² is a large part of those GHG emissions, and CO² can become carbonic acid in water which changes the pH. It is this lowering of the pH which has a strong negative effect on most plankton – more so than any slight positive warming. Plankton are in trouble.

      They do produce about half the oxygen in the air and sequester one third of carbon on the ocean bottom. If this seems fantastic, just pick up a globe and remember how vast the oceans are. Now picture a giant floating shrub extending nearly a half mile below the waves and very thick between those tropic latitudes. Plankton certainly does compare to the volume of vegetation on land. Plankton is also eaten by fish larvae, shrimp, barnacles, …and even baleen whales! Plankton is VERY IMPORTANT to the planet.

      You should read this recent article by Stewart Brand; https://aeon.co/essays/we-are-not-edging-up-to-a-mass-extinction. Basically he says that a decline in any particular species won’t necessitate an extinction event. Now applying this idea to plankton; out of the estimated 5000 species some would have naturally declined and gone extinct anyway. Just as a few new species are likely to evolve from current ones. The potential problem is that a few dozen species will become rare or go extinct also. Should pH drop to 7.95 many of the limestone/calcium plankton will become sparse while the chalk/calcite species will likely increase to fill the void. Scientists just aren’t sure that the overall concentrations will remain so dense. That could mean less oxygen and less sequestration. Less sequestration would be disastrous for GHG remediation too. That’s the looming disaster for the coming decades and even centuries.

      I hope this response is helpful. If you or your friends have specific questions you might email, phone, or even visit one of the may organizations I linked to in the article. Those are the real experts.


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